Monday, July 6, 2015

Homesickness and Starsickness

It’s rare that I cry, and rarer while pressed up against a gaggle of smartphone-wielding Chinese tourists. But on April 13th, when I was in Vienna, I bought a €3 standing-room ticket to Anna Bolena. This is an opera: Gaetano Donizetti’s version of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anna Netrebko, the most beautiful Putinist in the world, sang the title role.

Immediately before her execution, Anne dreams madly of her idyllic youth, a comfortable and loving world that she lived in before she was swept up by a whirlwind onto the English throne. She sings a series of songs, longing for the life she had before her world went mad:

(The  sequence culminates in Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimiThis is taken from an Anglo-American song, best known as “Home Sweet Home.” It was wildly popular during the Civil War on both sides, and was reportedly banned because it caused soldiers to long dangerously for home. It was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song, and I imagine it called up his childhood in Illinois, before he ever put on a suit.)

Here, we see nostalgia in its most distilled form. Even queenship isn’t enough to quiet Anne's quiet yearning to return home. The world, for all its sophistication, is pale and spiritually empty, and cruel to boot. But at home our existence makes sense. It is filled with love, spread out over countless unhurried hours. But there’s no home to return to for Anne—nor, I think, for most of today’s city dwellers.
All ’round the little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Then many happy days I squandered,
Many a song I sung.
When I was playing with my brother
Happy was I.
Oh! take me to my kind old mother,
There let me live and die. 
All the world is sad and dreary,
Everywhere I roam,
Oh! Brothers, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.
Nostalgia, for its part, is one of the inevitable pains of the forced march of time. We cannot go back to greet the dead, and can only call up comforting phantoms to our memory. Our childhood, and the memories passed down to us from our parents, are as unreachable as the most ancient history. A lost grandmother’s laugh is just as far away from us as Nebuchadnezzar, the dinosaurs, and the lonely formation of the earth.

Now for something different. Here’s another of Donizetti’s mad scenes, from Lucia di Lammermoor: Lucy, though she is in love with Edgar, has been forced to marry Arthur. So she murders Arthur on her wedding night, and wanders around in a bloody dress for half an hour while she hallucinates that she is marrying the man that she loves. 

Dispite their similarity in form, Anne and Lucy’s sufferings are completely different from each other. In Anna Bolena, Anna looks back wistfully, knowing that she can never return. In Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucy looks forwards, longing for a future that she is cut off from. Anne is homesick, but Lucy is starsick.

Lucy’s delusion here is a flight from a stabbing pain. She had been given a vision of complete happiness—a life with Edgar. But just as she began to think that she might be able to have it, it vanished like a desert mirage.

The Greeks must have felt this when they thought about their gods. They saw the gods’ eternal life in heaven, free from all pain, and filled with joys and meaningful sorrows. But they knew that they themselves were dust; that they had been given only a temporary glimpse of the sun. And I've felt it too.
 As I said last year:
Being alive is painful for this reason alone: we are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.
I submit that homesickness and starsickness are the two most painful parts of being a human. They fill all of our art, and they fill the most sensitive souls.

These longings get expressed in religious form too: contrast Psalm 42 (As the deer thirsts for streams of water, etc.) with Isaiah 40:11 (He shall feed his flock like a shepherd). On the one hand we have the psalmist looking up with a pained stare, yearning to live among heavenly beauties that he barely understands. And on the other, Isaiah is gripped by a nostalgic desire for an embrace from his gentle father. The same two pains are expressed in the Eastern queen-of-heaven Mary, and in contrast, the Gothic tender mother:

The first Mary is higher than the cherubim, nobler than the seraphim: to win her favor is to be crowned with her in heavenly glory. The other is sweet and caressing: she invites us back to a warm hearth, offering us peace. We can only imagine the pain of the European souls that so feverishly reproduced these images throughout their art. They met two great human needs, and they still do for billions of Christian believers. The Jewish invocation avinu malkenu (“our father, our king”) expresses the same dichotomy, albeit in a characteristically watered-down form.

But without a religion to dull them, our needs for a home and for cosmic experience are unslakable. Even in a human utopia, even if all our ordinary needs are met—food, water, love, “self-actualization”—we are still stuck with the two greatest evils of all: our inability to return to our dead homes, and our damnation to sink below the earth.

At this point we can do two things. We can clamber into the brazen bull, and make our suffering into song. This is what Donizetti did. Or we can do our best to dull our pain with one opiate or another, self-induced faith being the most common. Either way, we can’t be cured. 

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